Overcoming Student Apathy

A story from Phylecia Palmer

“Six out of nine of my students don’t know who their fathers are,” says Phylecia Palmer, who teaches math and science to 11- to 15-year-olds, all of whom grapple with behavioral challenges, at a New York City middle school. “Maybe the mom has some kind of issue. One student has to leave class every day during sixth period to take care of a sibling. That’s a lot to handle when you’re 13 years old, and your only job should be to go to school.”

Palmer brings to her position an unusual mix of a local's seen-it-all insider knowledge and an outsider’s keen observational skills. She grew up in Jamaica, where, she says, the British-inflected school system mandated peerless manners, and economic realities compelled students to approach their classwork with utter seriousness. “The only job you can get in Jamaica if you’re not in school is a farmer—and no one wants to farm the land; that’s the job you saw your parents do,” she says. “The expectations were different there. You couldn’t fail—a C was failing.” When Palmer moved to Florida with her family in the eighth grade, she found herself two years ahead of her peers: “What they were learning in eighth grade, we had learned in sixth. So I just kind of relaxed, and I was getting an A+ for doing nothing.” Palmer now says she didn’t regain her academic focus until after transferring to “the number-one worst high school in the Bronx,” the notorious, and now-shuttered, Evander Childs High School. “The New York Post would just sit around the campus and wait, because someone was always getting shot or stabbed or fighting in the street,” she says. “When I was a kid, teachers would actually say that we were either going to end up dead or in jail." One exception to that was Mr. Stancil, a New York City Teaching Fellow. “He was like, ‘You guys are amazing—you can be whatever you want to be. I felt so encouraged, and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’” Palmer eventually obtained a marketing degree at St. Peter’s University and subsequently applied to the Teach for America program. Once accepted, she requested a placement in familiar territory: the Bronx. “My biggest challenge with these kids is that they don’t necessarily want to learn,” she says. “You have to trick them into learning; you have to make it so fun and so wonderful.”

One of the ways Palmer does that is with ClassDojo. She started using it in October, awarding points for turning in homework and being on task, and penalizing students for neglecting to do the same. “I honestly thought they were going to see right through it,” she says. “But it works like a charm. It’s saved my entire class.” Palmer’s able to micro-target her approach to influence specific students. “All my kids are smart—they’re just bad—but I have one young lady who is very, very smart,” Palmer says. “When someone else gets the right answer, she’ll throw a fit—and she’s such a force in the classroom that when she throws a tantrum, the entire class goes down.” Palmer started awarding (and penalizing) students for teamwork and bullying. “She was craving those points,” Palmer says. “And now I’ll hear her say things like, ‘Oh my gosh, good job’ to everybody else. She’s improving.” It’s a result Palmer says is emblematic of how ClassDojo helps her make good behavior a daily habit—the necessary first step in clearing a path for her students’ academic success. “They might not know it yet, but their minds are amazing.”

Phylecia Palmer, Middle School Special Educator

Phylecia is a middle school special educator in the Bronx, New York.